Peas and Beans and Rice, Oh, My

Peas and Beans and Rice, Oh, My

By Rabbi Marc Howard Wilson |

Do we or do we not eat kitniyot (legumes, rice and related starchy veggies) on Pesach? For centuries the simple answer has been Sephardim, “Yes,” and Ashkenazim, “No.”

Kehillot Ashkenaz apparently were more inclined to mill dried kitniyot into flour to bake into forbidden bread at Pesach. Hence, the Ashkenazi prohibition, which Sephardim do not share.

But the maelstrom erupted when a p’sak was issued by the Conservative rabbinate entirely lifting the prohibition on kitniyot, even for Ashkenazim. In brief, the rationale was that the practice had become irrelevant because it is now uncommon even in Ashkenazi communities to use kitniyot in the heretofore, bread-driven manner.

Rabbi Marc Howard Wilson is a writer, community organizer, and founder of MeetingPoint, a united interfaith community in Greenville.
Rabbi Marc Howard Wilson is a writer, community organizer, and founder of MeetingPoint, a united interfaith community in Greenville.

Expectedly, the p’sak was condemned by Orthodox (and some Conservative) Jews but was largely celebrated by Conservative adherents. To read the huge body of commentary, vitriol and rant in the social media, one would think that either the Messiah had come or that he had been waylaid by the Romans.

I am not sufficiently competent to debate the mind-spinning halachic intricacies of the kitniyot issue. Nor do I want to. I simply wish to interject a word besides mutar or assur that we have rarely heard invoked in the controversy, especially in a compelling way: “sentiment.”

Sentiment plays a huge role in Jewish observance, especially when we come to appreciate that Judaism is not merely a cut-and-dried creed. It is a peoplehood (or the clichéd “lifestyle”). It embraces not only do’s and don’ts, but also practices, folkways, regional minhagim and mores.

They awaken sentiments that bypass rationality as they streak nonstop to the neshama. Some of them are not momentary emotions; they often endure for generations, even if their relevance is lost or not even remembered.

Sentiments touch warm places inside, ones that spark fond remembrance of times, celebrations, comfort foods, relatives and loved ones who have passed on, and simply “the way things used to be.” When we’re touched, we savor the sentiment. Perhaps we laugh; occasionally we cry.

Kitniyot for some of us might be one of those sentimental tugs. I am an Ashkenazi and was raised with practices and traditions that have become uniquely beloved to our “tribe.” I connect with ages and places past — Grodno, Bialystok, Suvalk — with wonderment about when in antiquity did some zayde gone by first chant the melody for “Ki Lo” that we still lustily sing at our seder.

And sentiment lives on in the things that “we have always just done that way” — which vegetable for karpas, the family recipe for charoset, hide and seek with the matzah, you know. If we do them “wrong,” we don’t just miss them; we are short-circuited.

Perhaps the Conservative rabbis were right about kitniyot but also wrong about them. Sentiment is often stronger than the letter of the law. Thus, we eat our peas at the peril of depriving ourselves of yet another sentimental journey, just because it is no longer legalistically relevant.

My bubbe would never have served green beans on Pesach, and my zayde would have never tolerated a rice kugel. They likely did not even know what role kitniyot played in the bigger picture of Passover observance. But it was integral to their Passover.

Now, for me and my family, it makes a statement of where and whom we came from. We do not serve kitniyot, and our kids don’t either. Doubtful that we ever will. Case closed.

It may be the minuscule issue of kitniyot or something more august. Rabbis and laity: Please do not strip our practices of their potential for evoking sentiment. Stop calling them “halachically irrelevant.” Create a new/old paradigm in which the things we have come to venerate are still a source of sentimental celebration, rationally relevant or not. Loved when they are here. Missed when they are gone.

Where is the impetus, anywhere and everywhere, to inject beloved Jewish sentiment into a body that would otherwise be merely inert skin and bones? Unless more of us step up, I fear that one day we will miss them dearly when they are gone.

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